New planet discovered in trinary system – Another milestone in exoplanet research!

Image of Hot Jupiter
Most exoplanets are Hot Jupiters

Though the number of extrasolar planets continued to grow over the years, exoplanet researchers were sceptical about existence of planets around multiple star systems since it was suspected that if the stars are not sufficiently farther apart, the constantly varying gravitational force would eventually tug the planet out of orbit. However, recent discoveries of planets in such star systems have proven this hypothesis otherwise.

Planetary scientists last week announced the discovery of a new planet in the HD 132563 trinary star system in the constellation Auriga after a 10-year long study of the system which also made several other discoveries. The system consists of two stars with masses equivalent to the mass of our sun orbiting around each other at 400 AU. The main star of the system called HD 132563A is itself a binary star making it a trinary star system. According to the team led by Silvano Desidera of the Astronomical Observatory in Padova, Italy, this fact was not previously known about the system which was initially considered to be a binary.

Image of HD188753 Orbit
Orbit of HD188753 – Courtesy NASA

This new planet orbits the secondary star in the system called HD 132563B and was discovered spectroscopically using the SARG (Spettrografo Alta Risoluzione Galileo) at Italian Telescopio Nazionale Galileo or TNG. It is estimated that the planet is at least 1.3 times the mass of Jupiter and orbits around its parent star at a mean distance of 2.6 AU with a moderately high eccentricity of 0.22. The team has tried to image the planet directly using adaptive optics  since they could not initially rule out the detection as an instrument effect in the star’s glare.

This discovery brings the total number of planets discovered in multiple star systems to eight. Though the number is small, it seems planets can be commonly found orbiting around more remote members of trinary star systems for good periods of time. The age of the H132563 system is estimated to be between 1-3 billion years in the shorter end and up to 5 billion years. The two estimates have been drawn by measuring the amount of stellar activity and lithium (which decreases with time) and fitting the mass and luminosity onto isochrones respectively. Either way, the planetary system is dynamically stable.

Image of Gliese 667 C
The “Super-Earth” Gliese 667 C – Artist’s Impression

The team has suggested that based on these eight discoveries, it is possible that the occurrence of planets on remote members of multiple star systems may be just as common as planets around wide binaries or even single stars. The Extrasolar Planets Encyclopaedia thus received its 565th member. The HARPS (High Accuracy Radial Velocity Planet Searcher), the spectrographic component of the European Southern Observatory’s 3.6 meter telescope in 2009 discovered a “Super-Earth” in orbit around Gliese 667C, the third star in multiple system located in the constellation Scorpius. This earthlike planet is 5.7 times the mass of Earth and revolves around its parent star, a red dwarf, every seven days.

Astronomers celebrate Neptune’s Birthday!

Image of Neptune Planet NASA
Image of Neptune showing the Great Dark Spot – Courtesy NASA

Neptune turned “one year” old yesterday when it completed its first revolution around the sun since its discovery 165 years ago. Astronomy world celebrated this event as Neptune completed its one year which is 164.79 earth years yesterday. Named after the Roman Sea God, the 8th and last planet of our Solar System, Neptune’s location was mathematically predicted and discovered by Urbain Le Verrier, John Couch Adams and Johann Gottfried Galle putting an end to decades old question “Who was tugging on Uranus?”

Galileo observed Neptune on December 28, 1612 and again on January 27, 1613 and recorded the findings in his drawings. However, he is not credited with the discovery of the planet since he mistook Neptune as a distant star that appeared in conjunction with Jupiter. Neptune had turned retrograde on the day when Galileo discovered it, however, according to physicist David Jamieson, Galileo was at least aware that the “star” he discovered moved relative to the fixed starts.

Substantial deviations from astronomical tables of Uranus’s orbit published in 1821 by French astronomer Alexis Bouvard was subsequently observed leading him to hypothesise that an unknown body was perturbing the orbit of Uranus through gravitational interaction.  British astronomer John Couch Adams in 1843, began work on Uranus’s orbit using the data sent to him by the then Astronomer Royal Sir George Airy through James Challis, the then Cambridge Observatory director. His mathematical work through 1845-46 produced several estimates of the existence a new planet.

Image of Neptune's Orbit
Neptune’s Orbit compared to other planet – Courtesy Wikipedia

During the same period, French astronomer Urbain Le Verrier independently developed his own calculations about the new planet but did not stimulate enthusiasm in his fellow astronomers. In June 1846, Sir George Airy, upon seeing the similarity of Le Verrier’s first published estimate of the planet’s longitude to that of Adams’s estimate, Airy persuaded James Challis to search for the planet though the search that lasted throughout August and September of that year did not produce any results.

Meanwhile, a letter was sent to the German astronomer Johann Gottfried Galle of Berlin Observatory by Le Verrier requesting him to search for the new planet using the observatory’s refractor. A student at the observatory, Heinrich d’Arrest suggested to Galle that they might be able to make the discovery if they compared the chart drawn about the region predicted by Le Verrier and with the current sky to seek the displacement characteristic of the planet as opposed to a fixed star.  It worked and that very evening on September 23, 1846, Neptune was discovered within 1° of where Le Verrier had predicted and about 12° from Adams’ prediction. James Challis later realised that he did observe the planet twice in August but failed to identify it due to his casual approach to the work.

There have been much debate between France and Great Britain as to who should get the credit of the discovery of the planet. However, it was decided through international consensus that both Adams and Le Verrier should be credited equally even though to this day there are people who do not credit Adams with the discovery.

Image of Neptune by Hubble
Neptune shot by Hubble at four time intervals – Courtesy NASA

Neptune is 2.8 billion miles from the Sun which is about 30 times farther than Earth making it slow and freezing cold.  The image shows the planet in four hour intervals within Neptune’s 16-hour day. The white fluffy streaks are clouds, but not of the Earth variety. Due to the low ambient temperature of the planet, they are high-altitude swaths of frozen methane. Neptune has a 29-degree tilt, which, like Earth’s tilt of 23-degrees, causes the planet to experience seasons. Currently Neptune is experiencing summer in the southern hemisphere and winter in the north. While a season lasts only a few months on Earth, it lasts up to 40 years on Neptune.

Planetary scientist Dr. Craig O’Neil of Macquarie University says that we still haven’t learned much about Neptune since its discovery.  “It’s location at the edge of the solar system makes it a bit of a black hole from a knowledge point of view,” he says. According to him, the huge distance from the sun makes sun look like a point of light in Neptune no brighter than Venus does from Earth. Most of what we know about Neptune today comes from Voyager 2’s fly-by of the planet in 1989 and the Hubble Space Telescope.

Image of Neptune Rings
Neptune’s Rings shot by Voyager 2 in 1989 – Courtesy Wikipedia

Neptune does have a planetary ring system, though it is less substantial than that of Saturn. The rings may consist of ice particles coated with silicates or carbon-based material giving them a reddish hue. The three main rings are the narrow Adams Ring, 63000 km from the centre of Neptune, the Le Verrier Ring, at 53000 km, and the broader, fainter Galle Ring, at 42000 km. A faint outward extension to the Le Verrier Ring has been named Lassell; it is bounded at its outer edge by the Arago Ring at 57000 km. Observations show that the rings are more unstable than previously thought. Images taken from the W. M. Keck Observatory in 2002 and 2003 show considerable decay in the rings compared to images by Voyager 2.

Most of the atmosphere of Neptune is made of hydrogen, helium and methane. The blue colour supposedly comes from methane absorbing red light. However, Uranus, that has a similar atmosphere is cyan in colour. Scientists are still speculating about the supersonic winds of Neptune which are the fastest in the Solar System since their speed of 2,000 kilometres per hour do not conform to the large distance from the sun.

The Sun can’t be powering what’s happening there. Given Uranus has fairly mild winds, Neptune’s dynamics are a mystery. One idea is that if you put methane under enough pressure deep in Neptune’s atmosphere, it could convert to diamond which would fall as rain. This conversion process releases heat which could power the winds. That’s a little more speculative, but speculation is all we’ve got, ” says Dr. O’Neil.

Image of Neptune's Moons by Hubble
Neptune’s Moons by Hubble – Courtesy NASA

Shown above is a composite image of Hubble shots stitched together by NASA. You can see multiple moons within the same orbit due to the time lapse between shots. In order to get the true hue of Neptune’s atmosphere, NASA took numerous photos with three different colour filters. Over 30 moons have been discovered orbiting Neptune but the majority orbit farther away to fit into this shot.

Spacecraft captures sungrazing comet’s demise – A historical event!

 

Image of Sungrazing Comet's Demise
Sungrazing Comet’s Demise Captured by SDO and SOHO – Courtesy NASA

Scientists witnessed an extraordinary event for the first time in history when NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory stationed in outer space captured a “sun-grazing comet” descending into its demise by melting under the solar heat while grazing the star, reported MSNBC. The high definition imagers of the spacecraft spotted the disintegration that spanned a 15 minute period on 6th July, 2011 which according to SDO officials, has never been observed before.

This marked the first time a comet has been observed in real time as it disappeared though comets have been spotted near the sun before. “Given the intense heat and radiation, the comet simply evaporated away completely,” said the SDO official. In addition to SDO, another NASA-ESA spacecraft called the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory too captured the comet’s demise and recorded the video of the event. SOHO Scientist Bernhard Fleck said, “This is one of the brightest sun-grazers SOHO has recorded, similar to the Christmas comet of 1996.”

Due to the angle of the comet’s orbit, it passed across the first half of the sun and appeared to brighten as it was struck by sun’s hotter particles. Astronomers call these type of comets as sun grazers since their path is extremely close to the sun. They are relatively common and are also known as Kreutz comets, after the 19th century astronomer Heinrich Kreutz who first discovered them. Astronomers believe that these comets initially began as a single, giant comet and then broke apart centuries ago.

2005 YU55 to arrive on November 8, 2011

Discovered by Robert McMillan of the Spacewatch Program near Tucson, Arizona on December 28, 2005, the third near-earth asteroid of 2011, named 2005 YU55 will pass between the Moon and the Earth on November 8. The dark, near spherical rock of 400 meters diameter will move as close as 0.85 lunar distances from earth, confirmed NASA marking it the closest approach to date by an object this large that we know about in advance.

Image of 2005 YU55 Approach
2005 YU55 Approach (Click image to see animation)

Though classified as a potentially hazardous object, 2005 YU55 poses no threat to Earth for at least the next 100 years, reported NASA’s Neart Earth Object Program.

The approach of 2011 MD had created a news earlier this week, when it passed roughly 7,500 miles close to Earth. Earth’s gravity sharply altered its trajectory, preventing it from hitting the planet. However, the International Astronomical Union’s Minor Planet Center in Massachusetts, USA did put out an alert.

According to space scientist Clark Chapman of the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado, USA, there is a roughly 50 percent chance of a 30-meter-plus asteroid striking Earth each century. We can expect the next event of this type in 2028 when asteroid (153814) 2001 WN5 will pass within 0.6 lunar distances to earth.

2011 MD leaves warning to Earthlings

Image of 2011 MD Path
2011 MD Trajectory

The Asteroid 2011 MD, discovered on 22nd at the LINEAR near-Earth object survey in Socorro, New Mexico by the amateur Australian Astronomer, Peter Lake flew by the Earth on 27th at a close proximity of 7600 miles which is closer than most satellites. The approach did startle scientists but the prospect of the asteroid burning up in the atmosphere on entry was a relief.

The asteroid flew over the southern Atlantic Ocean, off the coast of Antarctica, during its closest approach. Though a relief now, such rocks are expected to brush Earth every once in six years. As part of the program to identify potentially hazardous objects, scientists are tracking threats like these regularly.

In February, 2011 CQ1, detected just 14 hours before approach passed even closer with a proximity of 3,400 miles making it the closest known flyby asteroid till date. You can view the images of 2011 MD captured by astronomer Tom Glinos and Wireless Beehive website here and here.

2011 MD belongs to a class of asteroids known as Apollo Asteroids that are known to be “Earth Crossers“.  Their orbital semi-major axes are greater than that of the Earth (> 1 AU) and the perihelion distance (q) is less than 1.017 AU. Initially thought of as a space junk, the asteroid gave only a brief period of observability since it appeared close to the Sun during its nearest approach.

The bigger news is that a larger 400m asteroid named 2005 YU55, will make a close return on November 8. However, it is already being tracked by JPL’s NEO scientists in addition to over 75 rocks on the watch list that might make close approach to earth between now and mid-October. Asteroids like these remind us about our vulnerability to an impact and to prepare the technology to thwart such an incident if it happens.

The 3G Saga – TATA Docomo and Me!

Image of TATA Docomo 3G Data Card

TATA Docomo 3G Data Card

It is a warm evening of March and I am writing this post from my new TATA Docomo 3G Internet connection. Since I moved to my new house, there had been no Internet and I feel as if I stumbled upon some magic elixir.  This post is named “The 3G Saga” because there is a long story behind how I got this connection and how we got it up and running. We faced many issues with it. This is the story of how we isolated each issue and what we did to finally solve each one of them. This post is dedicated to those poor souls who have taken the TATA Docomo 3G connection and are finding it difficult to make it work in Linux. You can treat this post as a tutorial as well.

In my earlier house, I used the horrendous TATA Indicom wireline broadband. I never changed that connection because all my attempts to change it failed. Anyway, when I moved to my new house, I approached them to move my connection. For any kind of Internet connection, there is a feasibility study conducted by the concerned ISP in the area applied for. In my case too it was done. Eroor apparently is not an ISP friendly area and TATA Indicom found the area not possible for their wireline internet.

The same was the case with Reliance NetConnect. Reliance guys should be penalized for using the word “feasibility“. Their big bosses are capable of constructing helipads on top of their houses and do ever grander things across the country. Nevertheless, I moved on with my other options like Asianet, Airtel and BSNL.

After a two month-long fight with BSNL, I finally got fed up and canceled my request. My only option remaining was using wireless broadband. A previous experience with Reliance wireless dongle caused some reluctance but apparently I didn’t have much of a choice. My manager had taken TATA Docomo 3G and she said it was okay. So I went ahead with the same.

Image of White Shark

White Shark

I always consider the behavior of mobile and Internet guys tantamount to white sharks. One drop of blood in the water and the sharks appear immediately and these guys behave exactly the same way. I applied and they came running. The dongle they offer is however the ZTE MF631 HSUPA. The Chinese company ZTE had released this model quite some time back and it seems to be an outdated one since their website no longer lists this device. What I believe is that TATA purchased large numbers of these old stock devices from ZTE China and is selling them at a higher price to the unsuspecting customers in India.

Image of Ubuntu 10.04

Ubuntu 10.04

Anyway, the guy who came to my house was not able to make the device run on my Ubuntu 10.04. When he saw Linux, he got scared and lost all hope immediately. He did not even know the APN of the connection he was providing. Terribly annoyed, I started working on it nonetheless. They did have a driver in the device for Linux and after struggling with the terminal for a few minutes, I got it installed. The device was getting recognized as a modem; however it did not connect to the internet.

I thought there was some issue with the device or their driver and I asked him to go find the fix. He went and another guy came but the story repeated. He said that I was the only customer in the city who asked this connection to be configured in Linux. I asked him to go and check it on another Linux computer. It is ironic considering the fact that Linux has a huge user base in India.

Image of OpenDNS

OpenDNS

Meanwhile, I called their customer support and asked for help but they refused to help me without buying that device first. But I observed another thing. My laptop was not able to connect via GPRS either. But I did have a faint memory of connecting using GPRS. I suspected whether this had anything to do with my attempt to prevent network manager program from updating my resolv.conf file with OpenDNS addresses.

My brother, who has more expertise in Linux called yesterday and I updated him with the status and my doubts. He asked me what exactly I did to get rid of OpenDNS. I told him that I  ran the command “sudo chattr +i /etc/resolv.conf” in the terminal. He looked up the man pages of that command and told me that the resolv.conf is now immune to any sort of updates, let alone OpenDNS. He asked me to check the “/etc/dhcp3/dhclient.conf” file as well. I did and sure enough, there were the two OpenDNS addresses viz 208.67.222.222 and 208.67.220.220.

Now everything fell in place. The network manager took the addresses from this file to update the resolv.conf. I immediately appended the two addresses in the dhclient.conf. Then I ran the command “sudo chattr -i /etc/resolv.conf” to undo the security I imposed on it. He asked me to me to check the GPRS and hung up.

Image of ZTE MF631

ZTE MF631 - The outdated device sold in India

I connected my phone to the laptop and voila! There was the connection! I called up the TATA Docomo guys on the morning of 5th March and informed them that I had found the solution. The guy came and I plugged in the dongle and ran the wizard and there came the connection. I didn’t have to install any software to get 3G. Ubuntu can detect 3G devices automatically and connect and I knew it was going to work without that software. And yet the representatives kept blaming Linux.

So I got connected on a Saturday. It worked fine except for the heat in the device. Once it got heated up, it didn’t connect and once the connection is kept idle, it didn’t connect. I went to my native to attend a marriage on 11th and when I returned, still it was  working. But the next day it stopped working.

I hadn’t given the address proof since they were not ready to accept the rental agreement as proof. Those buggers deactivated my connection because of that. I asked the representative whether they will accept the postpaid mobile bill. He checked with his manager and told that they won’t. I told him that the postpaid connection is also from TATA Docomo and asked him why should the company reject its own bill.

I asked my dad to intervene. He called that guy up and asked him the following.

1. “The current district collector of Ernakulam lives in a rented house. Won’t you guys give him an internet connection if he asks?

2. “26 out of 30 high court judges live in rented houses. Won’t you guys give them internet connection if they ask?

Image of TATA Docomo SIM

TATA Docomo SIM

He said that he will try something and get it reconnected. In the interim, I gave him a copy of the postpaid bill and PAN card. Yesterday he called me up and told that the SIM was manufactured for 2010 and they have issues reactivating the SIM in 2011. I wonder what kind of problem would that be.

He finally called up and told that he reactivated it. I was able to browse but the connection was intermittent. It kept switching between 2G and 3G networks and when it did, it disconnected. Finally I called up their support on Wednesday and asked what was going on. The guy told, he would send someone on Friday. I waited and no one came. I called again and another guy promised that a person will come on Saturday. I waited and still no one came.

 

Image of 3G Only

3G Only

In the interim, the guy who gave me the connection finally came with the bill. Also another guy, a chartered accountant, called me to verify my address saying that all postpaid customers have to go through that procedure. He also added that the connection will get fully activated only after he submits a positive report. I asked the guy who gave me the connection whether this was the case and he agreed to it. I also told him about the 2G-3G switching issue. He told that I need to use the software provided by them to get rid of that problem since it has the option to choose “3G only” setting.

 

Image of usb-modeswitch

usb-modeswitch

My brother and I again started troubleshooting on the phone to get this software working. He suggested that if we install “usb- modeswitch“, may be we can connect using the network manager itself rather than using their software. But whenever I tried to install or uninstall anything related to “wvdial” or any other program pertaining to USB internet, I get the error “E: crossplatformui: subprocess  installed post-installation script returned error exit status 2“. Though the programs used to get installed and uninstalled, it still gave the error. I thought it was some issue with synaptic. Further the software provided by TATA gave another strange error “Fail to connect! Link ppp0 wasn’t built !” to which no one has a clue on the internet.

My brother said that it was 1 AM there and he wanted to sleep. So we wound up the troubleshooting and I too went to bed. Today I called up their support and spoke to a girl who said that my number has been forwarded to the concerned persons. I said that they are forwarding it every day but no one calls me or comes to my house. TATA Docomo call center is located somewhere in Gujarat. I kept pushing to get the number of someone here in Kochi. Finally she gave two mobile numbers of one Renu Moncy, the Nodal Officer in Kerala. However no one picked the call when I rang.

Image of Reliance Netconnect

Reliance Netconnect

Anyway, my brother had figured out that crossplatformui had nothing to do with linux and that is some program from Reliance. That was news. I checked synaptic immediately to see whether there was something with that name. There was a crossplatformui listed and when I looked at the manufacturer of the package, sure enough, there was Reliance Netconnect written there. I wonder whether it got installed when the Reliance guys were trying to connect their wireless connection few weeks back.

So my system was more corrupted than I had actually imagined. I removed crossplatformui and usb-modeswitch. I also ran “sudo killall TATA_DOCOMO_3G” and then ran its uninstaller. Once done I reinstalled the driver and the software and it connected. But the issue didn’t end there. The software doesn’t create an entry in the network manager which continues to show that we are offline even though we are connected. And because of that my Pidgin didn’t connect since it keeps looking for a connection in the network manager with a message “waiting for a network connection“.

Image of Pidgin

Pidgin

My brother called today and he gave another solution too. He asked me to run “pidgin -f” in terminal. I did and it opened up fine and connected. I asked him what this command meant. He said that this workaround was actually meant for Red Hat but it works in Ubuntu too. This command forces pidgin to find the available internet connection and get connected. Further, when I run the TATA_DOCOMO_3G program with admin privileges, there are less number of disconnections.

Today, on 13th March, one week after I took the connection, I finally have a consistent way of connecting without being at the mercy of the device. Hopefully it will continue to connect and things may go smoothly. I will keep you informed with further updates as I use the connection. Thanks for your time.

The Vivekananda Decomposition – A New Type of Destructive distillation!

Destructive Distillation
Destructive Distillation of Coal

We learned about charcoal and coke during 8th grade but we didn’t learn how they are produced until 10th grade  when  our beloved Prema madam taught us the process of destructive distillation. I kind of liked the idea since the process reminded us of another experiment I conducted with my brother at home. Most ordinary light bulbs have a component inside that  resembles a miniature test tube which we have used to conduct experiments on projectile motion.

Filament
Inside of a light bulb

We found at an early age that the inflammable material at the tip of a match stick can be utilized to launch projectiles. My brother and I were introduced to the test tube like thing by our neighbors. We put the inflammable stuff inside it thing and compressed it from outside. When we applied heat at the open end of the tube, it shot forward like a bullet.

I thought that this tube could also be used for destructive distillation. Science freaks like my friend Shyamlal and I used to sit  in the class and mock spiritual concepts. In Hindi we were taught many lessons depicting stories of Buddha and Vivekananda. This is about an incident centered around a biographical lesson on Vivekananda and his contributions in our 10th grade Hindi text book.

Swami Vivekananda
Swami Vivekananda

The lesson was nice and at the end of it , there was a couple of paragraphs about his death. It was written that his body which was made of panch bhoot or five elements (earth, ether, fire, water and air) finally got separated from its soul and disintegrated into the earth. I was puzzled and asked Shyamlal who sat next to me “What does that even mean?”. He joked saying, “May be we can do a destructive distillation of his body to find out whether he is composed of panch bhoot!”. I stared at him for a while thinking about what to say.

It was a funny incident but it raised some fundamental questions in our minds. For instance, “Why do we still believe in pseudoscience even though we know that real science says something else?” “Why is it that yoga instructors and Ayurveda practitioners still preach about the vata, pitta and kabha doshas when the actual explanation of the symptoms in the body is different?”

My friend’s joke didn’t decompose Vivekananda. It instead decomposed our views on pseudo-scientific notions about the world around us! And now I like Vivekananda who caused this initiation.

Life giving formula!

Electroplating in Copper Sulphate Solution

Yeah I know. You must be thinking I am crazy! But read on and you will find out what I mean. It is funny that I don’t exactly remember in which standard this story took place. It is probably 9th or 10th. I went to my friend Shyamlal’s house with my brother to work on our electroplating project. (There are actually multiple stories centered  electroplating which I plan to include in a different post.)

Molecular Structure of Sulfuric Acid

After working on the plating stuff for a while, we got bored and wanted to try something different. We took a wide plastic lid of a jar and added copper sulfate solution to it. I don’t remember what the second ingredient was. It was something of green color. To this green solution, we added a little sulfuric acid. Since we didn’t have a stirrer, we used a paint brush to stir the solution. This caused some of the bristles to come out of the brush and fall into the solution.

Brush Bristles – Ours were thinner than this though

We kept the solution for sometime and went to the terrace to play. Later on we came back inside and looked closely at the solution. To our horror, we found that the bristles were moving very slowly even though the solution was static. The motion was random, something that resembled the motion of a worm. We thought, “Oh my, this formula gave life to bristles.

We stirred the solution again and let it settle down to see whether this conclusion was true and it was. Once settled, the bristles started moving like worms again.

Brownian Motion – A visualization

I wrote down the formula and took it home. For many days I was thinking what the hell happened to the bristles that resulted in this random motion that created the illusion of life.

After a while it clicked: “Brownian Motion!” It was the same stuff that led Einstein in 1905 into thinking that Boltzmann’s conclusions on atoms were in fact true. What he observed was the movement of pollen grains in water. We observed the same effect with brush bristles in a denser solution.

The puzzle was finally solved. Even though we didn’t invent a formula that gives life, it was enough to cause me headache for many days trying to figure out the meaning of that experiment!

Calorific Value!

Working of Rocket Engine using Liquid Propellants – Courtesy NASA

My 8th and 9th standard science texts were replete with concepts like calorific value, ideal fuel, molarity etc etc. Fortunately I was one of the few who could understand those conundrums. I was thinking about rocket propellants in those days. I knew that it burned rapidly and completely without leaving residue and that it generated huge volume of gases that drove the rockets forward based on Newton’s 3rd law.

A typical Home Laboratory

In 1998, we moved from our house at Pottakuzhy, were I setup my first actual lab to a house at P.S Road in Azad Road. I was wondering where I could set up my new lab. At Pottakuzhy, the windowpane had some designs made of metallic wires which enabled me to build a platform using the cardboard plate that the bakers kept beneath my birthday cake.

In this new house, I was disappointed because the windowpane didn’t have wired designs. They were just trite metal bars laid horizontally across the window. Anyway, I was able to get a hold of the small table that was previously used to keep the idols of Gods since we moved our Gods to the top of our bookshelf next to our television. By then I had collected so many things that it almost filled my table.

Monomethylhydrazine

Let me get on with the actual incident now. I wanted to develop a propellant that worked like an ideal fuel with great calorific value and all the other attributes I mentioned above. I didn’t have liquid hydrogen, liquid oxygen, methyl hydrazine, dinitrogen tetroxide or neoprene solution. But I didn’t really mind all that because I was confident about my capabilities and the chemicals I already had.

Brandy

So there I went with the quest for the ideal fuel. I took the experiment to my study table adjoining the lab table since there was no space on it and mom had hung some clothes on a rope above that. I took my usual vessel(brandy bottle cap) and added a little brandy to it. I had actually created a handle using thick copper and aluminum wires so that I could hold the vessel in my hand.

Step #1: I lighted the candle. I added a piece of solid NaOH into the brandy in the vessel. I held it to the candle flame. Nothing happened!

Step #2: I added a little candle wax and heated again. Nothing!

A Kerosene Stove – I extracted the Kerosene out of this

I was thinking why nothing was happening. May be another ingredient was missing. I thought about the other possible chemicals that I could add. Copper sulfate was a good choice but thinking about the chemical equations, I didn’t think it was a good idea since I thought it wouldn’t bring forth any favorable outcome. Sodium bicarbonate? Well, I already had Sodium hydroxide which didn’t do anything so far. Then I knew what I could add. I went to the kitchen and brought some kerosene and added a little into the solution.

Step #3: I started heating the new solution on the candle flame. Just 30 seconds and BANG!!! The whole damn thing burned up. The fire in fact spread outside and the whole vessel burned. I got scared and dropped it and extinguished it!

Candle Wax

I was exhilarated. This was really cool. When I checked the vessel, I found that except for the little candle wax I added in Step #2, the whole thing had burned. I thought that probably NaOH catalyzed the mixture of ethyl alcohol and kerosene giving rise to this spectacular combustion!

But was this really a propellant? Did it pass the tests required for it to be called a propellant? The young mind in me was disappointed because a part of me said that I had successfully completed stage one of my quest and that I need to move on to the next stage. But another part of me told that this is just a stupid experiment I did using the stuff in my house and that it is of no use and even if I wanted to pursue this experiment, I needed advanced equipment which I couldn’t afford.

Geotechnical Engineering

Anyway, I wrote down the results in a collection of papers which I maintained in my lab(a lot of which I lost in the ravages of time.) Years passed and I was in my 12th standard. One day at my native, I met my cousin who was then doing his masters in Geo-technical engineering. He asked me which field I wanted to take up after 12th. I told him that I needed to contribute to the field of aerospace science and technology. He was impressed and asked me to pursue it. We then discussed about the various aspects of the field.

The International Space Station – A masterpiece of Aerospace Engineering

During the discussion, the concept of ideal fuel came in. I told him about my experiments to find the ideal fuel. He smiled and told that this is not the right time to speak about ideal fuel. He asked me to do at least a doctorate in aerospace sciences before I even speak about this to anyone. I was partly discouraged but a lot motivated because I knew that someone did know that I had stuff in  me and was ready to guide me in the right direction!

The experiments continued…..

Antaradahanayantram – The Internal Combustion Engine!


Image of Internal Combustion Engine or Antaradahanayantram

Internal Combustion Engine or Antaradahanayantram

Don’t worry about the title. It means “Internal Combustion Engine” in Malayalam. In my taravadu at Kollam, I came across a book named “Kandupidithangalude Katha” or “The Tale of Inventions”. I got this word from that book. Being a fan of technology, I read about it. This was long before I learned about engines in school.

One day, I went to the back yard of my house at Kochi with a few items in hand. The intention was to create an antaradahanayantram! I took two caps of whiskey bottles and checked whether they closed on each other, which they did. Then I put a hole on top of one of them. Then I took another cap and made it a bit perforated on the side. I fixed that at the bottom of the other cap that did not have the hole.

Image of Whiskey Bottle Caps

Whiskey Bottle Caps

So in effect I made a cylinder with several holes here and there. Then I made a small fan and fixed it on top of the single holed cap. I filled that cap with water and the perforated cap with kerosene. Then I put fire into the kerosene. The idea was that the kerosene will burn inside and then boil the water which in turn will make the fan spin through its steam.

I don’t know why I thought this was an internal combustion engine since it looked as if it was both internal and external. Anyway it was burning and boiling the water. Nothing was happening to the fan though. Then my dad came and asked what was I doing. I said proudly that this is my internal combustion engine. He asked me what is that and I said antaradahanayantram! He just warned me not to create an explosion and left.

Image of Steam

Steam

I waited for some more time but nothing happened still. I was wondering what was going on. Then I noticed the flaw in my design. The steam has to come out of a narrow tube in order to utilize its power. I had just put a hole on top of the cap. So the steam was coming out just as it would if I am boiling water in an open vessel.

The design failed! I wound up my experiment and went inside. Sigh!